By Rachel Hills. First published in Cosmopolitan, November 2011.
You know who I’m talking about here: Alexa Chung, Daisy Lowe, Olivia Palermo, Whitney Port, Lauren Conrad, the Kardashians, the Middletons… They’re all famous because they photograph well and have the wallets and bodies to carry off the latest trends with ease. Often, they have rich and/or famous parents. Sometimes they’ll do a reality-TV show or front their own perfume or fashion collection. However, when it comes to their voices, their thoughts, their passions, it doesn’t get much more detailed than their latest designer outfit.
It girls – women who are famous for being famous and who excel at “being” rather than “doing” – are nothing new, explains fashion blogger Danielle Meder. What has changed is that now these women have been taken out of high society and plonked squarely into popular culture, thanks to reality TV and the blogosphere. It’s not just the ladies who lunch of LA, NYC and London who lust after Alexa’s Mulberry Alexa bag or Pippa Middleton’s gravity-defying derrière, anymore – it’s us, too. But are we seeking our inspiration in the wrong places?
As Meder points out, we’re a media-savvy generation, and most of us don’t actually want to be Whitney Port or Kim Kardashian, even if we might lust after their expensive wardrobes or large bank balances. However, spend enough time watching and reading about these ladies and it’s hard not to walk away thinking that the most important things in life are the way you look, what you wear and how much attention you attract – be it from men, photographers or your Twitter followers.
Author Caitlin Moran likens it to a video game, in which “if you complete a couple of ‘tasks’, like getting thin, being pretty and exuding fabulousness, you get whisked onto the next level, which is ‘having an amazing life’”.
It’s a trap Moran has fallen into herself. In her book, How to Be a Woman, she writes about her attempts to transform herself first into a “thin, beautiful, stylishly dressed, poised and gracious” princess. “I thought all my efforts should be focused on being fabulous, rather than doing fabulous things,” she writes.
Jenny, 27, shares Moran’s wit and critical mind. However, she still has what she admits are “crazy fantasies” about walking into a room and having people think she’s amazing. “Rationally, I know that life doesn’t work like that, but there’s still a part of me that likes the idea of being responded to in that way,” she says.
More than a pretty face
Perhaps I’m being too harsh. I like to look at Olivia’s and Alexa’s clothes as much as the next aesthetically-aware girl, after all. And if I believe that fashion designers have skills worth admiring, perhaps those who wear their fashions well are worth admiring, too?
Meder warns against dismissing these It girls as lacking in substance. “Being really, really well-dressed is a difficult task to take on. I think it’s cool to have girls who are dignified and poised and dress in a way that is aspirational,” she says.
Nor does it seem fair to dismiss these stylish women as empty vessels. They may let their clothes do most of their talking, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing substantial to say. “I think someone like Alexa Chung has a lot more to offer the world of fashion and culture,” says media commentator Erica Bartle. “The girl clearly has a brain.” Perhaps it’s not just our role models we need to think over, but the things we admire about them.
There’s nothing wrong with admiring another woman’s sparkle (or her sparkly shoes). However, when we focus on being rather than doing, we play a dangerous game. We buy into the fiction that if we had the “right” shoes, life would be perfect, but hanging your self-esteem on your image is a one-way ticket to misery.
What’s more, says Bartle, it doesn’t equip us for the real battles in life. “Say you want to maintain a physique you think is fashionable – are you going to be adaptable in social situations, in family life, or after having a baby? Or if financial hardship strikes and you can no longer keep up with the Alexas?” she says. “If we over-invest in our emulation of these style icons, we’re at risk when life deals its inevitable blows.”
Related: To Alexa or not to Alexa…